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Everything you need to know about training for spring gravel grinders

Coach Peter Glassford breaks down principles, learning and best practices

Chartered Professional Coach and Registered Kinesiologist Peter Glassford has been helping busy endurance athletes conquer big adventures for over 15 years. Many of his clients are pursuing gravel events in 2020 ranging from shorter events like Paris to Ancaster all the way up to ultra-distance gravel races like Dirty Kanza and bike-packing expeditions of all shapes and sizes.

He shared with us some of the principles, learning and best practices he has accumulated over the years.

How does the training change if you are getting ready for a gravel race this year?

Your training may look similar or be a lot different depending on what you have done previously and what event you want to do. A criterium or track racer going to endurance gravel might have a lot of work to do on the technical aspects of gravel and may need to focus on building endurance, pacing and nutrition skills. A marathon mountain bike racer might only need some time on a drop-bar gravel bike and more time pedaling on roads and gravel roads versus technical mountain bike trails.

As with any training discussion, you can start with incorporating general good training practices in your base phases early in the year and eventually make your training more specific to the event in the four to eight weeks prior. This means that for ‘spring classic’ gravel races, you may have to do specific intervals and rides on the indoor trainer or on pavement depending on the weather ahead of the event, which isn’t ideal but still works well, especially if you include your race equipment into the workouts.

If someone is taking on their first gravel race this year, what should they definitely be doing to be ready?

Specificity is important. I use the phrase ‘Game-Play’ to describe the practice of using our race gear, fueling and pacing to emulate race day during training. While training specifically and using your gear before race day seems like common sense, many people don’t prepare for off-road events very well. Weather, living in urban locations and social-pull to do road group rides make training specifically very tough.

You can prepare for gravel in the city gravel by hunting out ‘mixed-terrain’ rides using paths and parkland. Many experienced road cyclists could make a lot of improvements by essentially doing cyclocross or mountain bike rides on urban trails. An investment in riding more gravel could also involve traveling for training on the weekends or even going to a training camp to get on dirt earlier in the year, depending on your location and the timing of your goal event.

What is “Gravel Training”?

Gravel is a mix of disciplines or abilities. So, you could set your training up similar to triathlon where training time is divided among the three sports. In gravel, there are the mounts/dismounts and cornering from cyclocross, there are potentially moments that are more mountain bike-adjacent with rocks, longer climbs, and more rugged obstacles. And there are also elements of road cycling with extended time spent pedaling and even on pavement. Given your goal race(s) and your current strengths and weaknesses, ask yourself: What mix of cyclocross, mountain and road cycling do you need? If you ride six times per week, you can split those rides up accordingly.

If you are a road cyclist trying gravel then your specific period should include more work on technical skills, off-road riding, and hills (as relevant for the event). If you are like me and you are a mountain biker getting ready for Paris to Ancaster then it is actually the extended efforts at threshold on the road that are critical and so you can skew your specific event preparation in that direction.

What about ‘technical skills’?

Training and fitness are important, but the benefits of skills are often overlooked in our ‘data-driven’ age. In gravel, you can make up a lot of time and greatly increase your chances of finishing by learning, improving and regularly practicing things like dismounts, cornering, braking, bunny-hop, drafting, shifting, etc.

Skills that aren’t as obvious include riding one-handed or no-handed to give your back a rest, getting things out of your pockets and being able to eat and drink while pedaling. Being able to get a foot out to tripod in a corner or save a fall is also important to practice. Dismounts and mounts are often overlooked much of the year, but year-round practice to prepare for river crossings, steep climbs and other obstacles is necessary for off-road disciplines.

Whatever event is on your calendar, make sure that you’re using your race-day bike, gear, and fuel regularly ahead of time. Early events are tricky for this, but try to get your butt on the seat and test out as much of your gear as you can, even if it is on the trainer or pavement or local paths.

Check out Peter’s event training plans available now on Training Peaks